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article imageEU starts countdown to settle refugee quotas row by June

By Lachlan CARMICHAEL (AFP)     Jan 24, 2018 in World

EU ministers stuck Thursday to opposing east-west camps as they started a countdown to try and overhaul Europe's asylum rules by June when the three-year-old migration crisis could flare anew.

The minister from Bulgaria, which holds the six-month rotating EU presidency ending June 30, said he would introduce proposals to "try to find a balance between the member states" split over refugee quotas.

"Today we will see if we are on the right track or not," Interior Minister Valentin Radev told reporters as he arrived for talks with his European Union counterparts in the sub-zero temperatures of the snow-covered Bulgarian capital Sofia.

Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have either refused outright or resisted taking in refugees since the European Commission, the EU executive, first pushed through temporary quotas in 2015 as a way to ease the burden on frontline states Italy and Greece.

The summer of that year saw mass drownings in the Mediterranean at the start of Europe's worst migration crisis since World War II, as hundreds of thousands of people fled war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels last month set a June deadline for an overhaul of the so-called Dublin rules to create a permanent mechanism for all member states to admit refugees in the event of a new emergency.

June is when migrant flows across the Mediterranean tend to increase with the warmer weather.

Under existing rules, countries where migrants first arrive are required to process asylum requests, putting a heavy burden on Greece and Italy, the current main entry points to Europe.

Little, if any progress has been made since talks on asylum reform began in 2016.

EU cooperation deals with Turkey and Libya, the main transit countries, have helped to slow, at least for now, the flow of migrants to Europe since its 2015 peak.

But European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos warned that the crisis could flare anew at many points along the EU's external borders and all member states have to share the burden of admitting refugees.

- Stalemate 'not real' -

"Let's do something to get out of this stalemate, because it is not a real one," Avramopoulos told reporters on arrival, adding politicians were addressing a "domestic audience" rather than broader interests.

"I think that what will prevail is the European spirit and a spirit of solidarity," said Avramopoulos, a former Greek foreign minister.

Avramopoulos has said it is "unacceptable" for any states to refuse to take in refugees.

Eastern states argue they can meet their obligations instead by contributing funds to overburdened Italy and Greece.

"The quota system didn't work. It was not a good idea. We need to invent something new," Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak told reporters, backing the stand taken by Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

He said he wanted to study the Bulgarian proposals, whose details have not been revealed publicly.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who also handles migration, said it is not right for member states to let frontline countries assume the migrant burden.

"I hope that the countries which now reject (quotas) as well will come to the conclusion very, very soon that it cannot go on like this," Asselborn said.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said it would be "diffcult" to reach a June deal on quotas and suggested concentrating first on "easier" asylum reforms such as family reunification.

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